Anatomy of a Plate with Chef Stanton Ho
This is for Chef Stan.
For almost the entirety of my culinary career, I knew of Chef Stanton Ho only by reputation. He was the Executive Pastry Chef at the Las Vegas Hilton from 1979–2007 before serving as the Corporate Executive Chef for Chocolates a la Carte until 2012.
Among his many awards, Ho was the President of the first United States team to win a gold medal at the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie in 2001. I vividly remember watching the team made up of En-Ming Hsu, Ewald Notter, and Michael Willaume in the Food Network documentary with Chef Ho ever present in the background.
However, above all else, he’s a proud local boy from Hawaii who returned home often to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of culinarians.
While interviewing Chef Alan Wong for a previous article, he strongly recommended that I reach out to Chef Ho.
This was one of the inspirations behind a series of articles that I am currently working on titled “Anatomy of a Plate” (AoaP), in which I interview chefs to discover their creative process behind taking a dish from conception through development, plating, and eventually service.
The urgency to reach out to Chef Ho was reiterated by Chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka during her AoaP interview. Before I left her restaurant, I emailed Ho requesting an interview. Chef Ho responded, and I had an interview scheduled with him by the end of the day.
Over the weekend, I received an email from Joanne Ho notifying me of her husband’s passing. This news weighed heavily on me. Although my interaction with him was minuscule in comparison to others, I am grateful for the knowledge and insights I gained during the time that we had to talk.
This isn’t how I initially planned to kick off Anatomy of a Plate, however, I can think of no better way to pay tribute to Chef Ho than to share (as far as I know) his last interview.
As I look back on what he had to say, it occurs to me that the words he shared go far beyond the canvass of the plate.
Lessons like keep it simple, don’t over think it, trust your instincts, and live life to the fullest can be applied to all areas of one’s life.
During his life and career, Chef Stanton Ho influenced countless individuals, and his legacy will continue on in the lives of those he has touched. May the lessons from his last interview be as profound for you as they are for me.
March 3, 2017:
Q: Where do you start when conceiving a plate? Ingredient? Flavor? Look?
A: I always look to where I am creating these plated desserts. It is very important to fit the theme to the restaurant or where I am traveling.
Flavors in Hawaii are unique, and whether in Dubai, Japan, China, or any other foreign country, customers are always curious to see modern interpretations of classical desserts that pay homage to tradition while infusing them with interesting tropical flavors like passion fruit, sour sop, lychee and calamansi.
Q: Do you pick the plate to fit the food, or do you make the food fit the plate?
A: A question of this sort is irrelevant, as the plate is only a canvass. There are times when spending money for the sake of creativity is not feasible. Too many chefs have egos that are blown out of proportion. Remember, we are chefs, we make it work, and the investment [of time or money] for just a vessel is not always practical!
We have a responsibility to ensure a profit for the restaurant or company. It would be nonsense to invest in a vessel for a specific presentation that you would not be able to use again.
The plate does not make the dish — you do! Work with what you have, be a part of it, and coexist with what you have available.
Choosing a vessel is very challenging when it comes to presentation. When choosing a vessel, pick something that is very nice and simple that of course will fit all the components of your dish. Use your canvas to create your interpretation, be it classical, semi-classical, or abstract design of this art form [food].
You as a chef control the servings, the ingredients, the components, and everything that you see on the plate. Utilize the length, the width, the height, and sides of the plate/vessel.
The one thing that I tell everyone is that the customers, do not know the make up of your dish. No one has seen it, therefore the way the dish is plated is your surprise for the customer.
Q: How do you know when to stop? When is the dish finished?
A: Over doing a dish is never a good thing! Chefs make things too complicated these days, and for no reason at all! Life is too complicated. Keep it simple! Simplicity can be your answer in your sweet life!
However, “keep it simple,” is easier said than done, but it could be done if you, do not overthink the dish and what it represents.
You’re in charge as the creator, you take all these elements and make sure it is in your control. Make sure that each component is the best that you can make it, that the flavors are robust, and are in harmony on the plate.
Often, too many minds (or taste buds) can complicate things. At most, a second opinion is all you need to confirm your decisions. However, avoid being indecisive and trust your instincts.
When all components in your mind make it to the plate, it ends there.
Q: What inspirers you?
A: Living life to its fullest!
Having the past dictate to me the values, tradition, and love of nature in my Chinese-Hawaiian upbringing. Loved ones and close friends whom I value as Ohana [family] truly inspire me.
My upbringing near nature, the ocean, the mountains, the wind and surf. Being alone on the mountain side having peaceful and tranquil moments. These memories bring peace within myself, and helps me to focus.
Thinking of these things on a daily basis, several times a day. It is within the canvas of my mind that I create the dishes and art works that I prepare.
There is a competitive part of me that pushed me to venture out and challenge myself, both professionally and in my personal life.
Art has always been a part of my life. As a result, I built a reputation in an art form [ice carving, tallow sculpting, pulled sugar, and chocolate sculpting] that is now dying in this industry.
This art form has transitioned into an artless mass production industry where work is impulsively done, and not thought out thoroughly.
Art is everywhere if you just take notice. Open your mind and create! Also, cultivate the raw talent and artistic knowledge in young minds.
A balance life is your key to inspiration!